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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Rio Vista man was a WWII prisoner

Jerry Bowen


As Corregidor fell, 12,000 were POWs

World War II produced many real heroes. Some were prisoners of war.  George Nelson of Rio Vista was one of those heroes.

George was born Nov. 28, 1920, in Borslav, Sweden. His mother died when he was only a year and a half old. George’s father later left George with his grandmother and came to America.

In 1925, his father sent his two sisters to Sweden to get George and bring him to America. Unable to care for George himself, his father left him in the care of an aunt and uncle in Illinois where George remained until 1934. His father later remarried and brought the family to California, settling in Rio Vista.

It was the depression and a momentous time during young George Nelson’s high school years, with the rising tide of communism and fascism. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was reelected in a landslide and Shirley Temple was a box-office queen. The rise of Hitler in Germany produced war worries in 1937 and anti-war protesters in America ranted to avoid involvement in the conflicts overseas. FDR lost his attempt to pack the Supreme Court and the Golden Gate Bridge opened for traffic.

George graduated from high school in 1938 and worked at various jobs including at a bakery, a service station, and as a night clerk at the Rio Vista Hotel.

Europe erupted in war in 1939 when Hitler brutally attacked Poland. Britain and France honored treaty obligations to the Poles and declared war on Germany. America remained neutral as did Russia.

In 1939, France fell to the Nazis’ onslaught as America moved from “neutrality” to “non-belligerency.”

George said in his later years that early in 1940, “I heard that music and saw the flag waving and I volunteered.” He joined the Marines on Jan. 3, 1940, at the age of 19.

After completing boot camp in San Diego, he boarded the USS Chaumont on June 21, arriving in Shanghai, China on July 26 as part of E Company, 2nd Battalion, assigned to the military police.

The United States slowly was being forced to support the “fray” in Europe during the raging Battle of Britain, with President Roosevelt agreeing to supply the British with old warships.

Japan strongly protested President Roosevelt’s ban on exports of oil and scrap metal, materials that Japan was heavily dependent upon in its war with China. President Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term in November 1940.

On Nov. 27, 1941, the Japanese surrounded Shanghai and the American troops were evacuated to the Philippines. George arrived at Mariveles on the Bataan peninsula on Dec. 7, 1941 aboard the SS Madison. On Dec. 28 he was transferred to the island of Corregidor.

Relations with Japan had grown rapidly worse after the embargo on oil and scrap metal began. President Roosevelt’s appeals to Japan on Dec. 6, 1941 for peace reached an impasse, and war in the Pacific appeared to be probable. Japan charged the ABCD powers - American, British, Chinese, Dutch - with military encirclement.

The stage was set.

On Dec. 7, 1941, at 0758 hours, the words, “AIR RAID! PEARL HARBOR! THIS IS NO DRILL!” that were broadcast by Admiral Patrick N. L. Bellinger, shattered the calm morning in the Hawaiian Islands.

America declared war on Dec. 11 as the Japanese continued to astonish the world with successful assaults all across the Pacific on British Malaya, Thailand, Guam, Hong Kong, Wake Island and the Philippines.

Solano County prepared for war on Wednesday Dec. 11 with blackouts and air raid rules. In Vacaville, parents of Robert Costello and Rudolph Dito frantically tried to find out if their sons were okay. Costello was serving on a minesweeper in Pearl Harbor and Dito was a contractor working on Midway Island.

In interviews published later in a Rio Vista Museum book, “Starvation Days,” by Suzanne Lauzon, George Nelson recalled that “Corregidor is a small island at the entrance of Manila Bay. We called it the Rock. Malinta Hill was the highest spot on the island. The Malinta tunnel had been blasted through the hill from one end to the other.

It was a huge affair, made of reinforced concrete, and had about 25 side tunnels, called laterals, branching off. The laterals housed supplies, equipment, ammunition and food. There was a hospital lateral for the wounded and one for the island’s radio equipment. There were also living quarters for some personnel, along with the command headquarters for the various armed forces stationed on the island. General Douglas MacArthur occupied one of the laterals before he left the island.

“Our battalion commander told us, ‘You are not to be in the tunnel, you’re to be in the trenches.’ We were in the open in a pretty vulnerable place. We each had an open hole where we slept and kept all our belongings. One day there was an air raid and a bomb hit my hole. It just so happened I was elsewhere. I lost all my gear, everything I had.

“In order to be better protected during an attack, some of the men would dig holes into the rocky hillside. During one of the air raids, I got in one of those temporary shelters. It wasn’t reinforced in any way. A bomb dropped right in front of the entrance. Everything was dark and silent. The dirt covered the opening of the hole. Oh, man, you feel like you’re going to smother, but it wasn’t too bad. The fellow sitting beside me was next to the opening and he dug us out. Another shelter got a direct hit and killed all 18 men inside.

“Of course, the food rations were always short. A lot of the Army lived in the tunnel and they got fed right outside the tunnel entrance, and we used to try and finagle our way around and get in their chow line to get something extra to eat. We didn’t get away with that for very long. Eventually everybody was issued a chit that you had to show in the chow line. Rations were mighty short on the Rock, I’ll tell you. We got cracked wheat for breakfast with diluted powdered milk. Eventually we were totally cut off and received no more supplies, so things just got tighter and tighter.

“During lulls in the shelling, we could have our teeth checked. They had a dentist on the island, set up sort of out in the woods. If a filling was necessary, they had a corpsman who turned the crank for the drill. I remember I had that done. That was a slow and painful process, I’ll tell you.

“The shelling of the island was sporadic at first. Because we were surrounded, you never knew when or which side of the island they were going to hit next. When the worst of the shelling came about later, I was already a casualty and a patient in the hospital tunnel”

On April 26, 1942, George was caught in the open by a surprise barrage and was hit in the foot by shrapnel.

Several days after doctors removed the shrapnel an infection set in. A cast was put on the foot to stabilize the bones, leaving holes to be able to dress the wound. According to Nelson, the treatment was “stick the gauze in one hole and pull it out the other”.

On May 8, 1942, Corregidor fell to the Japanese and American forces on Bataan surrendered to the Japanese the following day. Some 12,000 men on Corregidor were taken prisoner. George was transferred to a Japanese ship on July 2 and was transported to Bilibid prison in Manila on July 3.

I’ll continue the story of George Nelson about his imprisonment in Bilibid prison in my next column. I thank the Rio Vista Museum for permission to use the book about George Nelson’s POW days, “Starvation Days.” You can purchase the book from the Rio Vista Museum. There is so much more to the story than what will appear in the columns. While you are at the museum, take the time to enjoy this fine home of our past.